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Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry made headlines with an eight-word pronouncement concerning U.S. policy in Latin America: "The era of the Monroe Doctrine is over." Kerry's remark drew applause from his audience at the Organization of American States (OAS) in Washington. "That's worth applauding," he said. "That's not a bad thing."

He then added: "The relationship that we seek and that we have worked hard to foster is not about a United States declaration about how and when it will intervene in the affairs of other American states. It's about all of our countries viewing one another as equals, sharing responsibilities, cooperating on security issues, and adhering not to doctrine, but to the decisions that we make as partners to advance the values and the interests that we share."

Kerry's repudiation of the Monroe Doctrine quickly became a major news story in Latin America. Yet most people failed to grasp the larger significance of his speech.

For those unfamiliar with its origins, the Monroe Doctrine refers to a passage in President James Monroe's December 1823 message to Congress that expressed U.S. opposition to new European colonies or dependencies anywhere in the Americas. At the time of its adoption, the policy was broadly popular in Latin America, which is understandable, given its anti-imperial character. Though U.S. officials often cited the doctrine during the Cold War -- when the Soviet Union was trying to establish strategic beachheads throughout the Western Hemisphere -- it has long been a relic of history. Even before Kerry delivered his November 18 speech, no serious person expected the United States to launch a military intervention in Latin America in hopes of defending a sphere of influence from foreign encroachment. These days, the term "Monroe Doctrine" is most commonly invoked by Latin America's populist demagogues, such as the late Hugo Chavez, in hopes of stirring up anti-U.S. passions.

On the other hand, by publicly renouncing the Monroe Doctrine, Kerry was effectively apologizing for decades of U.S. foreign policy. He was also indicating that the Obama administration is uncomfortable with strong U.S. leadership in Latin America. In that sense, his speech conveyed the wrong signals both to U.S. partners and to U.S. adversaries.

If we review Kerry's record as a senator, it's not surprising that he would implicitly criticize past U.S. actions in the region. After all, he fiercely opposed President Reagan's Central America policies, including aid to the Nicaraguan Contras and support for governments battling communist insurgencies. (In a 2004 National Review article, Jay Nordlinger noted that Kerry "was the only senator to vote against money for police training in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Costa Rica" in December 1985.) In 1983, he dismissed the U.S. liberation of Grenada as "a bully's show of force against a weak Third World nation."

But even Kerry has to acknowledge that such Cold War-era issues look different from the standpoint of 2013. By supporting the Contras, the United States ultimately compelled the communist Sandinistas to allow a free election, which they lost. By supporting the Salvadoran and Guatemalan governments in their struggles against communist guerrillas, the U.S. helped prevent the guerrillas from establishing Cuban-style dictatorships. For that matter, U.S. intervention in Grenada replaced a pro-Soviet communist regime with a pro-Western democracy.

More recently, it was U.S. support, combined with the courageous leadership of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, that helped save Latin America's third-biggest country from becoming a failed state. (In 2009, then-U.S. ambassador William Brownfield described Colombia as "the most successful nation-building exercise by the United States in this century.") We might also recall that, at the start of the Bush administration, the United States orchestrated crucial financial assistance for Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina, each of which was experiencing an economic crisis. In the years that followed, the administration signed free trade agreements (FTAs) with Chile, Peru, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Colombia and Panama.

In short: While Washington has obviously made plenty of mistakes in Latin America, its pre-Obama record is far more admirable than Kerry suggested.